Viewpoint: Does Singapore deserve its 'miserable' tag?

Commuters on a train in Singapore

Singapore's reputation as a wealthy, aspirational and hi-tech country ensures it attracts a great deal of foreign talent - so why is it labelled the world's least positive country?

It was Christmas, but as my husband and I waited for our luggage in the shiny arrivals hall of Changi airport, the internet delivered tidings of no joy.

"Check this out," posted one friend on my Facebook wall, with a link to a survey of 148 countries in which Singaporeans were revealed to be the least positive people on earth.

We were at the bottom of the happy pile along with Iraqis, Armenians and Serbians. "Good luck in misery city!" he wrote.

Over the next few months a happiness battle kicked off around us. Singapore's politicians reinforced their commitment to well-being and Starhub - a mobile network provider - launched an advertising campaign called "happiness everywhere", full of smiling Singaporeans dancing to plinky-plonky guitar music.

On the other side there emerged, mostly on the internet, an army of discontented souls who applauded the survey for validating their sense that life just seems to be getting harder and more expensive as Singapore gets richer.

Personally, I chose to ignore the public hyperbole and concentrate on what I encountered personally. And sure enough we have found plenty of apparent happiness.

In the free public barbecue pits of Singapore's beautifully kept parks, for example - always full of jolly families and groups of friends enjoying an evening in the tropical heat over a coolbox of beer.

And in the broad, toothless grin of the septuagenarian vendor at our local food court, who served me my daily dose of delicious, fresh pineapple juice.

People on bikes in Singapore

And at dinners with our Singaporean friends who did not seem to moan any more than the rest of us - sure they are battling soaring property prices and the tedium of the corporate ladder, but coming from London that was hardly unfamiliar.

We got on with life on the immaculate island, where social housing estates look like spotless toy towns, crime is pretty much non-existent and you can get a delicious bowl of noodles for $3 (£1.50). If we were living in the misery capital of the world it certainly was not affecting our own sense of happiness.

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Until I got pregnant.

Ten weeks of morning sickness ensued, turning my daily commute into a 45-minute gauntlet.

One morning the nausea finally got the better of me just as I had stepped on to a packed train. Worried I was going to faint, I crouched to the floor, holding my head in my hands.

And so I remained, completely ignored, for the full 15 minutes it took to reach my station. Nobody offered me seat or asked me if I was OK.

For the first time Singapore had made me feel unhappy. I had been vulnerable - completely reliant on the kindness of strangers. Singaporeans, I felt, had let me down.

As I sat recovering on the platform, I wondered if this was part of the story behind those Gallup poll results. By this time a follow-up to the original survey had been published and according to the figures, Singapore had apparently cheered up quite a lot.

But all I could see was a massive compassion deficit. Or were my fellow passengers that day just unusually uncaring?

"Oh no, I am not surprised at all," said a Singaporean friend later that day. "My sister is seven months pregnant and she fell down a packed escalator the other day and had to crawl to the nearest railing to heave herself up. Nobody helped."

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Another Singaporean friend was equally unsurprised. "I slipped down a drain last year and cut my leg," she said. "It was bleeding badly but nobody stopped to help. Perhaps they were all in a rush."

Our friend Marcus offered deeper analysis over brunch in a trendy retro cafe. That is not his real name by the way - in this authoritarian democracy, the majority of people are very reluctant to go on the record with anything remotely negative about Singapore.

And negative Marcus is: "We are programmed to think only about ourselves," he exclaimed. "The only thing that matters is money - helping people is not important."

Marcus is Chinese Singaporean but was educated in Canada. After five years back home he is desperate to leave again, because, he says, Singapore makes him unhappy too.

"In Canada people were helpful and friendly and they respect each other regardless of whether you are a manager or a bus driver.

"The problem here is that we measure everything in dollar bills - personal identity, self-respect, happiness, your sense of worth - it is all linked to how much money you have. But only the top few per cent earn serious cash - so everyone else feels worthless and apathetic."

Market in Singapore
Street scene in Singapore
Singapore skyline

We went on to discuss the numerous theories about whether it is materialism making Singaporeans unhappy or uncaring - or the fiercely competitive education system, or Confucianism, or the government's historic emphasis on economic growth above all else.

More misery on the Magazine

The debate certainly has not gone away despite the latest set of survey results.

Happily my morning sickness has passed, but despite becoming visibly pregnant, it was still rare for anyone to offer me a seat on the packed commuter train without my having to ask first.

I do not know if I would have had a better time in London, but in the Singaporean rat race you are certainly on your own. An unhappy conclusion, I am afraid, from misery city.

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Here is a selection of your comments.

I agree with you totally. I had a similar experience. I just finished a 40km cycle event and was puking my guts out at a typical large black open type dustbin. I didn't expect anyone to help out but neither did I expect anyone to disregard my presence and predicament and to brush me aside and continue to throw rubbish in front of my face.

Vance Kang, Singapore

I strongly disagree. When my wife was pregnant, she was always offered a seat in the MRT trains in Singapore by the commuters. It was other way round for us that it was rare that my wife was not offered a seat. Every place has got its own pros and cons. I always felt that Singapore had more pros than cons.

Kumar, Coventry, UK

I've certainly experienced a similar situation. One day when my feet were really hurting, I couldn't find a seat on the subway. So I slithered down a pole to sit on the floor. It embarrassed the people who saw me: one standing passenger immediately moved away from me, while a few stations later another passenger mentioned there was a seat I could use. Now I do things differently. Since I'm over 60, when I'm really tired I go to one of the reserved seats, point to the 'reserved' sign above it, and ask for the seat. The passenger invariably stares at me in amazement, but I'm able to sit down.

Veron, Singapore

I am a Singaporean by birth, residing in Singapore. I like to relate a personal story that happened in my childhood. I was in a Fun Fair and spotted a wallet near a rubbish bin. I took it the nearest police station against my mother's warning not to involve since police will take me as a suspect. Due to my childhood naiveness, I wanted to help the poor person who lost the wallet. While I was in the police post, I saw a daughter and mother reporting about the lost wallet and the police confirmed that the wallet that I have returned belongs to them. Immediately, the the eyes of the victim, mother and the police gave me a fright. At that moment, I felt that my mother was right and I should not have bothered to return the wallet. I was told to fill my particulars and to report to the police if the victim wanted to take a legal recourse. That bitter lesson taught never to assist anyone. Many years have passed but the bitter lesson that I have learned remains.

Siva, Singapore

I have had similar experiences before. I was in a train travelling from the city to the north, and a young lady dropped to the floor moaning with pain because she was suffering from leg cramps. I immediately went to her aid in the crowded train, and everyone else just simply stared at me, on the floor with the young lady, all the way to her destination, which was 20 minutes away. I helped her off the train into the train station before alerting the station personnel. You may conclude immediately that I would agree with your assessment that this is an uncaring society (like those other people who repeated cliché statements about the Singaporean society). Not so. You see, I am the National Director of Habitat for Humanity Singapore, past of an international Christian charity fighting poverty around the world. In the course of my work, I am with volunteers from all walks of life in Singapore, and I see this society as anything but uncaring. The key reason why you were not helped was not because the people were uncaring. It was more because the people did not know what to do, or were afraid to stand out of the crowd.

Yong Teck Meng, Singapore

I have been a resident of Singapore for 5 years now and "misery" is not a word that enters my mind when I think of Singapore. "Boring" maybe, "Bloody Hot" definitely! But certainly not miserable! What surprised me most in reading this article was that Ms. Ashton's "revelation" of misery came after she became pregnant because for me it was the EXACT opposite. When I was pregnant, I found that people could not have been kinder and more caring, both at work and elsewhere. My colleagues looked out for me and pampered me,(carrying things for me, urging me to rest) while in public, people would frequently motion me to sit if I were standing on the bus (which by the way, continues even now when I am travelling with my son), some restaurants would be extra considerate in making me comfortable, one of them extending their kitchen hours even though we had arrived late.

SM, Singapore

I was prompted to respond to this after an incident that happened earlier today. Here's my story: my car just broke down on Holland Road, a busy road in Singapore, in rush hour, in the middle of a heavy rainstorm with thunder and lightning. It was 'change shift' time so no cabs were stopping. I had my kids with me, my helper and a pile of school bags and all their swimming gear. A lady - a complete stranger - stopped her car, picked up my kids and my helper, and drove them all the way home (Upper Thomson Road - about 10km) while I waited for the tow truck. It was out of her way and she didn't have to pick up a stranger's kids. There are not enough words to say how thankful I am to her. Then, the lady whose house I broke down outside came out with a glass of water for me, and kept me company while I waited. Who says there is no kindness or compassion here? I think my story blows that generalisation right out of the water.

Kerry Cracknell, Singapore

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